On The Menu
By Nicholas Lander
An exploration into the single piece of paper which has given the world more pleasure than any other
Publication date: November 2016
Everything On The Menu
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For the past 45 years I’ve had the pleasure of spending time in the company of the most exciting menus from around the world. From my days as a commodity trader in the 1970s when I was told “Understand a menu and wine list and you can always show your customers and suppliers a better time than your competitors”, to my time as a restaurateur at L’Escargot in Soho and the 25 years I spent as the restaurant correspondent for the Financial Times.
My whole life revolved around menus: writing them, costing them, keeping them pristine and making sure that our menu kept in touch with the changing needs of our customers – for example introducing a vegetarian main course when it was a most unusual phenomenon.
On The Menu will explore the history, psychology and creativity of these pieces of paper and card that generate more pleasure than any other. The book will also incorporate several of the best looking and most influential menus from around the world including those from L’Escargot in the 1970s, when all main courses were under one pound; the last menu at The French Dining Room before Fergus Henderson moved to St John; and the final menu from El Bulli in Spain.
I will be interviewing 10 top chefs from around the world and asking them what inspires them to write their menus. I will talk to a leading graphic designer about the principles of menu design and layout, and to a psychologist about how restaurateurs convince us to spend more money. I will also explore how menus have been used to raise millions of pounds for charity, and perhaps how they can do so again in the future.
As I began to think about a sequel to my first book The Art Of The Restaurateur (an Economist Book of The Year), I kept wondering why, despite the fact that menus generate so much pleasure for an increasingly large number of people around the world, nobody has written a book that give menus the credit they deserve. With On The Menu, I intend to do just that.
MICHAEL ANTHONY: The Whitney, New York.
HESTON BLUMENTHAL: The Fat Duck, Bray.
SALLY CLARKE: Clarke’s, London.
ARNAUD DONCKELE: La Residence de la Pinede, St Tropez.
ANNE-SOPHIE PIC: Pic, Valence.
BRUCE POOLE: Chez Bruce, London.
RENE REDZEPI: Noma, Copenhagen.
THE MENU AS ART
ALLA TESTIERE, Venice, the daily fish menu.
LA BEAUGRAVIERE, Mondragon, France, truffles, truffles and truffles…The blackboard, everywhere.
CHAPTER ONE, Dublin, with the list of all its suppliers.
CUISINE WAT DAMNAK, Siam Reap, Cambodia, France in Asia.
INIS MEAIN, Ireland, nowhere is more local.
MONVINIC, Barcelona, where the menu is projected on to the wall.
LUK YU TEA HOUSE, Hong Kong, one of the longest running dim sum restaurants.
QUO VADIS, London, where a new menu design rejuvenated business.
SHIORI, London, where the menu, cooked by the husband and served by his wife, is presented inside an envelope.
TAILLEVENT, Paris, the classic, and most concise menu/wine list in the world.
ZUNI CAFE, San Francisco, perhaps the most appealing menu.
Pages to drool over.
Quick select rewards
I have been excited and delighted by menus for over 40 years.
This fascination began as a neophyte finding my way round restaurants on a budget. During the 1980s, as restaurateur in London’s Soho, I wrote, priced and edited the menus at my highly acclaimed L’Escargot restaurant where we were among the first to write menus in English and to change our menus with the seasons.
For the past 25 years I have been dissecting the menus of restaurants from around the world while writing the restaurant column for the Financial Times – and in the pre-internet days I often had to resort to stealing menus!
My first book, The Art Of The Restaurateur – profiles of 20 of the world’s most admirable restaurateurs from around the world – was published to great success by Phaidon in 2012 and was named a Book of The Year by The Economist. It has also, I appreciate, become a source of inspiration for many in the UK and the US setting out on a career in the hospitality business.
On The Menu will be a similar source of pleasure for everyone who enjoys restaurants.
My apprenticeship for all this was sitting around the table at my Jewish home in Manchester where family meals were great fun. Since then, my greedy travels around the world have made me realise that until time travel becomes a reality, holding a menu in one’s hands conveys immediately and unrivalled sense of place, of shared pleasure, of fun, and above all, of friendship.
From Glasgow to Shangri-La: the meals that made my year
In his 25th year of writing for the FT, Nicholas Lander shares his highlights from around the globe
Towards the end of lunch with Jesus Adorno, the genial face of Mayfair’s Le Caprice for more than 30 years (and director of Caprice Holdings), he leant across the table and said, “Nick, you know, I’ve come to the conclusion that in the restaurant business today, it has never been more challenging for the restaurateur and nor has there ever been a better time to be a customer.”
The factors behind Adorno’s analysis are many: rents, food costs and red tape are all mounting up. Next month, for example, the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation will come into force in the UK, obliging restaurants to list potential allergens in their food.
Diners, meanwhile, are increasingly knowledgeable and discriminating. And yet for those without a celebrity surname, attempting to reserve a table at a glamorous restaurant at 7.30pm or 8pm does not get any easier, despite the growing number of good restaurants. The observation made by an Englishwoman living in New York that “making a reservation in a restaurant has become this city’s latest blood sport” is ever more pertinent in London, too.
As I looked through my notes on the restaurants that I have been fortunate enough to eat in during my 25th year writing this column, it was not just the memories of all we ate and drank that came to mind. Each place also evoked a single, colourful, indelible image.
A menu from The House of Lords 1972
A menu from The House of Lords 1972
- 7th March 2016 An update
ON THE MENU – AN UPDATE March 2016.
You are receiving this as one of more than 100 kind people who have so
generously pledged towards the cost of producing my second book, On The Menu
– The World’s Favourite Piece of Paper. I have never before achieved 105% in
anything I have ventured into so now that I have achieved this level…2nd April 2015 Isn’t this a lovely menu to wake up to?
Breakfast menu from Ballymaloe House in Cork.
These people are helping to fund On The Menu.